Organised jointly by cartoonist Sonny Liew and writer-historian CT Lim in conjunction with the National Library, Speech Bubble is a exhibition showcase of the marginalised art form popularly known as comic books. The opening night event was held last night at the National Library, Basement 1 Central Public Library and I was fortunate to get invited!
Who is this Singapore comic book artist Charlie Chan Hock Chye that was able to channel the history of comics through the critical Singaporean events of the last 60-70 odd years? Well, he does exists… BUT only as a figment of artist Sonny Liew’s fecund imagination.
So yes, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is an imaginary tale presented within the context of Singapore history but an imaginary tale nonetheless. It is an artfully constructed “What If” tale and encourages the reader to imagine – “what if Singapore had an legitimate comic book history”. What if, indeed.
Thus, though couched in biographical terms as some kind of historical document – the story of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a fantasy, a fairy tale where the history of comic books unfolded in decidedly Singaporean circumstances.
So while everyone (including the authorities) seem hellbent on treating the story as some kind of political commentary with the potential to undermine the status quo, a more accurate understanding would be to perceive The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye as a tribute to comic books and to Singapore itself.
In that sense, I would state categorically that the true purpose of this ambitious graphic novel would fly over most Singaporean heads and by the story’s denouement would leave the same disappointed that it was not the middle finger to the Government that it had been perceived to be.
With references to Osamu Tesuka, Harvey Kurtzman, Windsor McKay, Eagle, Pogo, MAD, Spider-Man and the like, it would be abundantly clear to a comic book geek what Sonny is trying to achieve here. And the manner in which he is able to weave these references into the Singaporean narrative is sheer genius.
My particular favourite moment is where Sonny channels Philip K Dick by paying homage to Dick’s alternate reality opus The Man in the High Castle (google it for details) to imagine a Singapore where history was altered somewhat from reality. Again, the shock of seeing this alternate reality is probably worth the entire price of the book!
And what about the artwork itself? Any description I would give would not do it justice, surely. Reflecting the stylistic changes in comic book history, Sonny handles each different ‘genre’ like a master, while keeping his own artistic identity intact. No mean feat! A wonderfully immersive visual experience with an eye for detail that will blow you away.
In the final analysis, I will not mince my words – The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a masterpiece. Nuff said.